- Wahlquist, Gilbert
- Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Castlemaine
- March 2005 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Sixty years on, there it was. The unmistakable motion of the moving deck of an Australian Navy corvette under my feet. I always knew they could roll on wet grass. The grass was a few yards away in Nelson Park, Williamstown, Victoria. The corvette, newly painted, was moored snugly alongside Gem Pier. I looked over the side. There was barely a ripple in the water but she was moving all right.
I was aboard HMAS Castlemaine, not on a navy draft this time, but visiting, an inspection by invitation, of this beautifully restored World War II warrior.
My host was Bob Gerring, a retired shipwright, one of the group of 15 volunteers led by Peter Williams, who has been secretary of the project since 1971. The volunteers have procured gear, rebuilding and replacing, to make the ship into the bright, attractive, living thing that she is today, more than 60 years after she was commissioned in 1942 at HMA shipyards nearby, now operated by TENIX.
Peeping over the yard sheds were the masts of Anzac class frigates, Ballarat, Toowoomba and Perth. When Perth is commissioned she will be the completion of a ten-ship building project for the RAN.
Having TENIX for a neighbor has been good for the Castlemaine. Bob told me that in 2004 the ship hadn’t been out of the water for 12 years and there was some corrosion along the waterline. TENIX had some down time in their graving dock before Christmas and Castlemaine was invited as a guest for five weeks, from 23 October to 24 November. The company welded doubling plates over wind and water worn areas and cleaned and painted the hull and upperworks.
The condition of the hull under water was first class, thanks to cathodic protection. The propellers were in excellent condition. Bob and the volunteers had built a new mainmast to conform to modern safety standards and this was stepped by TENIX using one of their 250-tonne mobile cranes. The facsimile radar aerial was fixed to the top of the mast and it has been wired to rotate. The volunteer staff turn it on when the ship is open for inspection.
Dick Budzienny from TENIX dropped in while I was there. Bob’s enthusiasm for the ship is unbounded. He is the ship’s honorary electrician and he was there to check the motor turning the radar aerial. A navy radar hand had reported that the aerial was rotating the wrong way!
Dick seems to have played a big part in restoring working electrical machinery in Castlemaine, making sure that everything meets today’s safety standards.
I was a seaman on a corvette in 1945 and I did not think I would ever stand on the deck of one again until I stumbled on the HMAS Castlemaine website on the internet.
A few phone calls and a drive from Sydney and here I was, standing in the forecastle messdeck, looking for somewhere to sling my hammock again. I was with the stokers on the starboard side. Seamen were usually on the port side. I don’t know why that was, perhaps that explains why I had several stokers for friends.
The forecastle messdeck is the largest space on the ship and it is used to fulfill the ship’s primary function, to act as a museum for the Maritime Trust of Australia. Glass cases housing ship models, cordage and memorabilia tell a story of the sea. On one bulkhead is a carving from the German World War I raider Emden.
I could wander along to the galley and see the canteen, food store, sickbay and bathrooms. I went below to the messdeck of the chiefs and petty officers. You can look down into the ammunition magazine which held 282 4-inch shells and approximately 2,500 rounds for each small gun.
Because each of the corvettes built was the same as the others it was not difficult to imagine myself back on my own vessel HMAS Rockhampton. The navigator’s cabin and chartroom were immaculate and every part of the ship had been restored better than new! How did 80 men fit into these crafted spaces.
Passing through the air-lock to the boiler room, the heat of that place has fortunately gone; the three drum water tube boilers are not flashed up these days. The brightwork of the boiler room and the engine room with its two triple expansion reciprocating steam engines developing 1800 I.H.P. is a credit to the crew. We have to remember that these boilers and engines were completely built in Australia for the corvettes. In 1992, volunteer Stokers and Engine Room Artificers raised steam and turned over both engines.
The bridge is complete with wheel, chart table, compasses, repeater screen for the radar, voice pipes and engine room telegraphs. An unusual feature of this particular bridge is that it was built of brass, even the deck is brass, to provide the best environment for the magnetic compass.
The bridge of a corvette was always open. This one has been enclosed to protect the ship from vandals. It seems small. How did it accommodate the officer of the watch – a lieutenant or sub lieutenant, the helmsman – a seaman or leading seaman, lookouts – two seamen and possibly a man aloft (in the crows nest), submarine detection – a specialist seaman, signalman, navigator – Lieutenant as and when required, and often the Captain – on call at all times.
Below the bridge is the captain’s cabin, complete with desk and bookcase. Fine cabinet-making went into the ship. The ship’s bell is still hung amidships near the quartermaster’s cabin from where it once rang the watches. It is engraved with the ship’s name.
The wardroom down aft has been restored, complete with the steward’s pantry, liquor store and the dumb waiter used to send the meals down to the officers once they had been plated in the pantry above. The officers’ cabins are complete with bunks.
Up top is the minesweeping gear, similar to that used by the ship when it was engaged in sweeping minefields at the end of the war. There were depth charge launchers here – 30 normal and 20 heavy-duty depth charges were carried. The armament is shipshape – a 40 mm Bofors gun aft and a four-inch gun forward. There is a 20mm Oerlikon on the starboard wing of the bridge.
Two individual flags and one group of four are regularly flown when the ship is open for inspection. From the jackstaff (at the bow) the Australian National Flag, the Blue Ensign, is flown. It was flown when the ship was alongside or at anchor and is raised or lowered in the same manner as the White Ensign. Protocols for flying flags at half-mast are observed.
A group of signal pennants signalling the ship’s number: J244 are flown from the main mast until a new gaff, planned by Bob Gerring, is installed. From the ensign staff (at the stern) the original White Ensign is flown. The ship is proud to fly the TENIX flag from its masthead.
A useful leaflet given to visitors explains that HMAS Castlemaine was one of sixty Australian ships built as minesweepers and escort vessels during World War II in Australian shipyards as part of the Government’s wartime shipbuilding programme to increase the strength of the Royal Australian Navy.
Castlemaine was built at Williamstown and cost 250,000 pounds. She was laid down: 17 February 1941, launched: 7 August 1941 by Mrs. R. G. Menzies, wife of the Prime Minister, and commissioned: 17 June 1942. Cold weather set hard the tallow on the shipway and the ship stuck. After 20 minutes she was pulled into the water by the tug Keera. For a ship that did not want to be born, Castlemaine has lived long. Following commissioning at Melbourne she went to Sydney for working-up exercises. Entering the harbour on the night of 11 August she collided with a Manly Ferry, which was bigger than she was. This put her in dockyard hands for seven days.
She then went to the northern waters of Australia, New Guinea, Pacific and Indian oceans and the China Sea.
Castlemaine was working with sister ship HMAS Armidale off the coast of Timor in December 1942. Armidale was bombed by Japanese aircraft and sunk with the loss of more than 100 lives. Castlemaine then served as a convoy escort vessel on Australia’s East Coast and in New Guinea waters.
In August 1945 she was sent to Hong Kong and cleared minefields with the 21st and 22nd Minesweeping Flotillas until October. She returned home via Morotai, Thursday Island and Townsville, and paid off in Melbourne in December 1945. She had steamed 117,000 miles on war service.
The ship was laid up and from the mid 1950s to 1971 served as an immobilized training vessel for Engine Room Artificers and others at HMAS Cerberus, Flinders, Victoria. In 1973 the vessel was gifted to the Maritime Trust for preservation as a museum ship. She was returned to Melbourne and berthed at Gem Pier, close to where she was built.
The Trust receives no government money and relies on gifts, gangway receipts and sponsorships for income. Equipment for the restoration of the ship has been sourced from all over the world. When Peter Williams and his group heard of a corvette headed for the scrap heap they cannibalized it for authentic parts. Gem Pier has been condemned and rebuilt during the re-birth of the ship.
The Pier runs off Nelson Park and that is where my visit ended. In the park I found a stone plinth holding a bronze plaque recording the name of every corvette that served in World War II. From this memorial I looked towards the ship.
With a clear blue sky reflected in the waters of Hobson’s Bay the bright grey of the freshly painted hull was a background to the ship’s number. She is riding high now without ammunition or fuel oil and I looked closely to see that, yes, on the end of her moorings, she rolls, ever so slightly.